“Take two aspirin and call me in the morning”. That used to be the jest about what doctors told you when you called them after hours. Everyone – doctors and patients – knew that the two aspirin were only treating symptoms of an underlying problem. The doctor was probably trying to make you more comfortable and help you sleep through the night. He may also been thinking that the underlying problem might solve itself. If it didn’t, the next morning he would need to spend some time and effort to make a more thorough examination before making a better definition of the problem – a diagnosis – that would help him decide what treatment – or solution alternative – might work best.
Retiring U.S. Senator Tom Coburn spoke to my Rotary Club a couple of weeks ago. He said that much of the problem in Washington was that the government was treating symptoms and not the underlying problems. We human beings have a tendency to do that for several different reasons; a) in socio-economic situations its sometimes difficult to tell the symptoms from the core problem. b) it’s frequently easier to treat symptoms than to do the examination – research – to develop a good problem definition. We may not have the training that the doctor has had in the realm of the problem. Also, for most of us humans it seems to be easier and more fun to debate alternative solutions than to do the “drudge work” frequently needed to arrive at a good problem definition. c) Solving core problems usually calls for some sacrifice – we may be required to spend time in the hospital or the bed. It may interrupt our normal activities and things we like to do. And it’s easier to take two aspirin and have the pain go away for at least awhile. So the congressman may have a significant number of voters who may not realize that some proposed solutions, that don’t require much of them, may only treat the symptoms.
So Senator Coburn said that frequently our congressmen were faced with alternatives that required them to make uncomfortable choices. “Do I do something that is in the best interest of the country in the long run even though it may cost me votes, or do I do something that eases the pain and will help my re-election chances.” He said that most of elected officials are – he believes – people who are well-meaning. They want to do what it takes to solve the underlying problems, but they also want to be re-elected. So too often they opt for the “two aspirin solution” because it won’t cost them votes in the next election. But, like our health, frequently putting off addressing the underlying problems only results in their getting worse. Sooner or later we won’t have a choice, but at that point treating them will be harder. It will be more difficult and require much more sacrifice than it would have if we had addressed them sooner. The answer is, he said, would be to have more people in Washington who not only have honesty and integrity, but have the moral courage to put the best interest of the country ahead of their political careers.
He stopped there, but I’ve had some additional thoughts since hearing him speak.
For starters, there is a moral argument for doing what got you elected. The people whom we elect are our representatives, and should follow our wishes. After all we have a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”. We should do what the voters want. It’s their interest that we represent, and they let us know what they want at the poles. As their elected representatives we need respect their wishes even if there are times we may not totally agree with them.
I believe that argument has some merit. The follow-on argument is that if the people’s representatives are not working on things they want done, that they will vote them out at the poles. Never fear, the government is for the people and the voters are in charge. But I have some difficulties with this at this point. The presumption is that the voters understand the “core problems” and will vote to do what is the best long-term interest of the country. I think there are several reasons this might not work in the best interest of the country.
- I believe one of the reasons we have a “representative” government (and not a pure democracy) is that the people trying to do their jobs to earn a living don’t have the time to do the research and examination to be able to define the “underlying problems” Many in the media would argue that the main reason was that when our government was formed, communications were too slow to do anything else. But with today’s technology, all of us can be instantly informed on world events. Which get’s me to (2).
- The media is addicted to short reports (probably because that’s what most people seem to want). CBS news has “your world in 90 seconds”. Another net work carried “in-depth reports” that may have lasted 2 minutes or less.The evening news shows are filled with 10 second sound bites. And the papers are not much better. If it takes my doctor 30 minutes or longer to diagnose one problem that I have, how can I understand several national issues in one or two minutes. The other problem is my doctor has 4 or 5 years of medical training before he begins seeing me. How many years of training have most voters got in economics for example. So how can the voters be reasonably expected to be able to diagnose problems well, much less know what the best solution might be?
- Alexis de Tocqueville once said, “[A democracy] can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury…” If my doctor gives me aspirin that makes me feel better, I may keep taking that until it’s too late to solve the underlying problem.
- My last thought is that most of us make better decisions when we had “some skin in the game”. When this nations was formed the voters needed to be property owners (i.e. taxpayers) Once we got past that, we still had some requirements in many states to be able to read and write (some level of education in order to be able to understand the issues.) Now we believe that everyone who is a citizen has the right to vote. There is a lot of merit to that, but also a problem if we expect the voters to oversee the elected representatives. We fought a revolution on the basis of “no taxation without representation”. With 40% or more of the population not paying federal taxes, we have a lot of “representation without taxation”.
I believe that maybe the de Tocqueville quote is too pessimistic, but not beyond the realm of possibility. I also believe that Senator Coburn is right in his description of the choice elected officials are often faced with and that we need more politicians dedicated to take the risk of doing what’s in the long-term good of the country. But how do we get there from here? I don’t have a good answer for that.